Vus’musi, a 4,500-pound, 7-year-old African elephant, was having his morning regimen with Curtis Lehman, a senior elephant keeper at the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park.
Lehman held out treats for Vus’musi — who got his name, roughly translated as “to build a family,” from the king of Swaziland. The mammoth mammal snatched the treats with his trunk and stuffed them into his mouth.
On command, the elephant turned this way and that for Lehman to inspect his tail, his flanks, his anus, his tusks and his feet. A strong metal fence was between elephant and keeper at all times, a practice known as protected contact.
Lehman’s voice was melodic, soothing; in San Diego, the days of keepers barking out commands at elephants are long gone.
Watching closely were two animal specialists from Reid Park Zoo in Tucson: supervisor Sue Tygielski and elephant keeper Cassie Rogge. Their attention alternated between Vus’musi and Lehman.
Soon, several elephants from Safari Park will pack up their trunks and be moved to Reid Park Zoo as part of a breeding loan. In exchange, Reid Park Zoo will send an aging Asian elephant to San Diego to join the herd at the zoo there.
The week’s goal was for Tygielski and Rogge to watch Lehman and other keepers. But it was also for them to bond with Vus’musi and the other elephants, and vice versa.
It’s a slow process. There will be other visits before the transfer is made later this year.
Elephants know when keepers are scared, timid or faking it, Lehman said. Some keepers are good with elephants, others not.
“It’s all about the relationship between elephant and keeper,” said Lehman. “You have to develop trust, on both sides. You have to be genuine, to have your heart in it.”
For reasons of genetics and temperament, Vus’musi is a good candidate to be among those elephants included in the transfer. He was sired in Swaziland and born in San Diego. Soon he’ll be ready to do his part in procreation.
San Diego and Tucson officials have yet to pick the traveling herd, but it will probably include cows, calves and a bull — four or five elephants in all. The loan will be open ended; any offspring will belong to the Safari Park.
The 1,800-acre Safari Park — once known as the Wild Animal Park — has 17 elephants, more than any other zoo or animal facility in the United States.
The 17-acre Reid Park Zoo is expanding by 7 acres, including a 3-acre area for elephants to be known as Expedition Tanzania. The expansion, costing $9.6 million, is slated for completion in January.
The elephant probably will not replace the anteater as the zoo’s logo animal, but elephant images are already appearing on a billboard outside the zoo that promises: Something Big Is Coming.
Jeff Andrews, animal care manager for San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, said San Diego officials have been approached by several zoos about an elephant loan.
The Reid Park Zoo was selected, he said, because its elephant management plan is similar to San Diego’s: no hitting, no screaming, no negative reinforcement.
Zoos that use the old style need not apply, Andrews said.
At its groundbreaking ceremony, Reid Park officials promised to “closely mirror the training and husbandry techniques utilized in San Diego.”
The San Diego zoo shifted to the new style of elephant handling in the mid-1990s after decades of the old style that depended on keeper dominance and punishment. Andrews has become one of the leading exponents of the system that requires keepers to get voluntary compliance from elephants.
In 1988 the zoo was fined by federal officials for its rough treatment of an elephant. In 1991, an animal keeper at the then-Wild Animal Park was killed when she was caught between two male elephants.
Some animal rights activists believe that keeping elephants in captivity is cruel, even with the protected contact system. A lawsuit attempted to block the recent expansion of the elephant facility at the Los Angeles Zoo. Activists opposed the Reid Park expansion as well.
Elephants are not new to Reid Park Zoo. The park has two aging females: a 30-year-old African (Shaba) and a 42-year-old Asian (Connie).
But the Safari Park herd, from which the Reid Park loan animals will be selected, has lusty males, protective cows, babies, and a range of personalities from docile to frisky and off-putting.
After his morning session with his keeper, Vus’musi was chased by a big cow and her baby, apparently jealous of the attention he was receiving.
“They’re all amazing,” Tygielski said.